Derek Jeter: The luckiest man on the face of the earth

On June 1, 1992, with the sixth overall pick in the amateur draft, the New York Yankees selected a high school shortstop out of Kalamazoo, Mich., by the name of Derek Jeter.

Nearly two decades later, there are scarcely enough superlatives to describe Jeter’s impact — and almost all of them have been uttered in the wake of his remarkable performance Saturday, when he joined the 3,000-hit club with a home run and singled home the winning run as part of a 5-for-5 day.

Jeter is the iconic player of his generation, the best shortstop of his era, the face of his sport, a sure-fire first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. His knack for the big hit, the smart play, the transcendent moment is unparalleled. Beyond that, he is the perfect ambassador for the game — gracious to everyone, impervious to controversy, even in the face of the unparalleled scrutiny and rumor-mongering of the Internet Age.

He is a genuinely good and decent man, a man of character. Anyone who takes seriously the duties of parenthood can recognize the fact Jeter was clearly brought up right. You’d want your son to grow up to be just like Derek Jeter. You’d want your daughter to marry someone like him.

But of all the adjectives tossed around in the last 24 hours, I haven’t seen the one that most frequently comes to mind when I consider Jeter’s career: The guy is simply the luckiest son-of-a-gun in the history of everything. I don’t mean to take anything away from Jeter’s accomplishments, which he earned, or his accolades, which he deserves. If anything, I am in absolute awe of his luckiness – and I don’t say that just because he has dated Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Biel, Jessica Alba, Mariah Carey and Minka Kelly, among others. But you cannot deny that fortune has smiled upon this man as it has for no other.

Much of the luck that runs throughout the Jeter legacy traces back to the first sentence of this story — to the sheer fact he was drafted by the Yankees. Imagine if the Cincinnati Reds, for example, had taken Jeter (rather than the immortal Chad Mottola) with the fifth overall pick. Jeter might have become Barry Larkin. Had he wound up in Milwaukee, he might have become Robin Yount. Nothing wrong with either one. They were great players – one a Hall-of-Famer, the other a possible electee in 2012 – but they weren’t iconic figures. They were not national treasures. They didn’t host Saturday Night Live.

No, the comparisons aren’t perfect (Jeter was a better hitter than either), but you get the point: Only in Yankees pinstripes could Jeter have become this transcendent figure, pushed along by the mythology machine of the New York media, to whom a great Yankee is not just a memorable player – but the heir to the legacy of Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio and Mantle. He isn’t on the cover of GQ if he plays in Cincinnati. He isn’t dating Minka Kelly if he’s in Milwaukee.

Of course, the good fortune didn’t end with his simply becoming a Yankee. He also became a Yankee at the exact moment the franchise was preparing to launch a dynasty. He was a rookie in 1996, the first year of the Joe Torre regime, the year the Yankees won their first World Series in 18 years, and what would become the first of four titles in a five-year span. Jeter had a lot to do with those titles, obviously, but he also benefited from amazingly good timing.

And then we can start looking at some of the individual highlights of the Jeter legend. His first significant moment on a national stage was his home run in Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series. That’s right — the Jeffrey Maier homer, snagged at the wall by a 12-year-old boy who reached onto the field of play. It should have been an out.

What about the Jeremy Giambi catch-and-flip play in the 2001 AL Division Series – the one that epitomized Jeter’s off-the-charts intangibles, his knack for being in the right place at the right time, his singular ability to see plays develop before they actually do? If Giambi slides, he’s safe. End of story.

Do we need to keep going? The “Mr. November” homer in the 2001 World Series? Well, there would have been no World Series games in November had the regular season not been put on hold for a week in September because of the 9/11 attacks.

Move ahead to Saturday’s heroics. Like everyone else, I watched raptly as Jeter went for the historic No. 3,000. But having come to appreciate Jeter’s astoundingly good fortune, I also watched with an eye towards spotting luck’s role, and as always I was rewarded.

In the first inning, Rays pitcher David Price twice appeared to have struck Jeter out on fastballs that were called balls. Finally, on a 3-2 pitch, Jeter bounced a ground ball between third base and shortstop for hit No. 2,999.

In the bottom of the third, as it was becoming evident that Jeter was having trouble getting around on Price’s 95-mph heater, Price inexplicably threw him a 78-mph curve ball in one of Jeter’s sweet spots — down and in. There it went, into the stands in left, and there it was, hit No. 3,000 — chieved in typical Jeter fashion, with a flair for the dramatic and the monumental.

Later, we would come to find out the historic ball — the price tag for which could have been in the tens of thousands of dollars — was caught by a 23-year-old fan who immediately made it clear he would give the ball to Jeter and ask for nothing in return.

Upon learning this, I thought: Of course. Of course it was.

Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999.
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